12/3/2004 4:38AM (3:38PM Abu Dhabi)
The last time I was in the United Arab Emirates, it was 1983 and there was sand everywhere. Everyone was thin in the way that all nomadic people are, with aquiline features and fuzzy eyebrows. The country was dusty, and barren, a desert kingdom in the most stereotypical sense of the word. That was 21 years ago. Yesterday I got to Dubai, the gleaming center of trade and industry for the Middle East and soon the world, and was stunned. In the intervening years Dubai had become something completely beyond my ken. The airport was clean and efficient in ways that left Heathrow and JFK in the dust, with marbled arcades and arching glass ceilings. I stumbled through it, a worldly ragamuffin, through to the passport control area and baggage claim. Dubai is one of the most open places you'll ever go, since the tiny emirate is pushing as hard as it can to be a free trade zone. I could go on and on about the steps they've taken, but I will simply say that getting in and out is a thing of great ease, and leave it at that.
The only thing that belied all the modernity was the sudden appearance, as I walked through the airport, of a ninja. "Ninja" for the uninitiated, is not an assassin from the feudal era of Japan, but a woman covered from head to foot in black robes with only a thin slit for her eyes (and even that is frequently covered by a diaphanous veil). They are the stereotype of a Muslim woman that all liberal folks in the West point out as proof of Islam's misogynistic bent, failing as people in the West often do, to recognize that this particular practice is limited to places like the recently pacified Afghanistan, and the ersatz friendly states in the Gulf. Seeing a clutch of these ninjas, some in the company of men who were either their husbands or brothers, I found myself staring. Much like yourselves I wonder what sort of life these people lead, and what passes through their minds as they walk through public spaces so isolated from the rest of the world. Staring can be somewhat dangerous, though, considering that the whole purpose of the niqab (as it is known) is to discourage that sort of thing. So I forced my gaze onto other things like the advertisements for Duty Free booze, and the bronzed European faces staring out from a poster for some haute couture next to the moving walkway.
One learns to avoid the muwatineen in these places. The word itself means "citizens", and the use of the word is pointed. Outside of it's most obvious meaning, it implies that they belong here, and you, my friend, do not. They are both the law, and above the law; they make policy, and ignore it; they are both pious and dissipated. Up until quite recently, the only way to do business in the Emirates (and in many other Gulf countries) was to have a partner who was a muwatin. This partner had to own 51% of the enterprise and was not required to do much else. Basically they would sign their name to documents, get a nice office, and never do a lick of work, dropping in only to pick up their handsome checks from time to time. For this reason business has stagnated in most every Emirate apart from Dubai which (due to it's lack of oil wealth) has made trade and commerce uncommonly easy. The citizens, like those of the Roman Empire, enjoy a great many rights, but make up a paltry proportion of the population. Only 26% of the population of the UAE are muwatineen, the rest of the bulk made up of the various stripes of foreigner who actually make things run, from national security to street sweeping. With all these advantages they are predictably fat and venal, filling their days with eating copious amounts of fatty foods, drinking fresh fruit juices and watching satellite television. I am mostly shocked and disgusted by their behavior, and when I remember the outraged attitude of many Arabs and Muslims at their low regard in the world, I sometimes think that perhaps we/they have it coming if this is the best they have to offer. A generation of PG-13 Paris Hiltons.
At least they have good taste in food, because that is one of the things that makes this place bearable. They have here, perhaps the best shawarma sandwiches you will ever have the pleasure of eating. Forget the stale, dry chicken shawarma sandwiches you've had, wrapped in a limp half moon of pita, like a refugee from a drought stricken region of the world. The ones they have here are juicy and tender, with a savory flavor that brought tears to my eyes. The pita is warm as a mother's embrace, stuffed with chicken, pickle, and garlic sauce like that same embrace is with affection. It is nature's perfect food, and never mind that it can't be found in nature. Upon arrival in Abu Dhabi (a good hour and a half on the road from Dubai) my cousins took me to their local shawarma emporium, which is run by the Lebanese in the area. Their full Nelson over this sector of the economy is well-deserved, as they have brought their civilized cuisine to the dusty masses and made us all happier. Mind you, this is not the only thing that these wily Levantines have control over, but that is the subject of another post, perhaps. In this particular arena I bow to their superior knowledge and watch on, patient and in awe, as the mu'allim or maitre of the shawarma, slices tender pieces of meat into an open pita, adding slivers of potato and pickle with a dollop of sublime garlic sauce. I ate two in such a short time that I wondered that they had ever been there in the first place. Perhaps it had all just been a dream? I could not linger over these thoughts, as we had to head home to wait for my aunt to get off work.
My aunt is a wonderful lady. She looks like a shorter, roly-poly version of my mother, but it much more garrulous, with a manner of speech that leaves your hair swept back with its speed. We went to pick her up at the University of the Emirates, where she has been working since my cousins were old enough to be relied upon to take care of themselves at home. From the moment I saw her I felt my heart go out and my knees follow it. I hadn't seen her for such a long time that I wanted to immediately start weeping as I hugged her and kissed the shock of white hair in her forelock. She sat behind me as we drove back to the house, asking questions about my parents and my flight. She kept talking as we got into the house, and into the living room, and as I brought my laptop out, and as we watched the video files of my cousin's wedding in late October that we had both missed. My mother had given me copies of the files knowing that my aunt, uncle and the cousins would be desperate to see what had transpired at the wedding and who'd been there and who hadn't. Wedding videos are a big deal to Sudanese living abroad, as they are the last palpable link to the celebrations that are going on in your country as you range the world, protecting common sense and earning an honest buck. Between the videos, and just general conversation about how the family was faring we ended up staying up till almost four in the morning. She managed to be up bright eyed and bushy tailed at 8AM or so, waking me up at 9AM to eat breakfast and keep talking.
My poor aunt! She is so lonely out here in the UAE. Like my mother she is finicky about who she will befriend, which, combined with how busy life keeps her, makes her fairly isolated. Like her sister (my mother) she is so close to our family that this distance between her and them is like a weight that sits on her chest. It is a constant reminder of how she is at the periphery of our family life, relegated to watching the rest of the family celebrating births, marriages, and so on, without being able to really take part. More-so than either myself and my siblings, my mother and aunt are affected by their lives as expatriates, suffering silently, and stoically, away from the people who they love. So this trip was of paramount importance to me, since it gave us a chance to see each other, and drew her close to the bosom of the family for the few days that I would be here. The visit would recharge us both, and make the intervening months till the next visit more bearable. Of course, this leaves me with yet another dilemma (who is surprised by that?), which is that I also have friends whom I haven't seen in many years, living here, and I want to see them too.
In 1991 I moved out of my parents' house, to Alexandria, Egypt, to begin my university studies. I was 16, brash, and so wet behind the ears you'd think that Davy Jones and I were sharing locker space. Far away from home, I was befriended by a bevy of young Sudanese guys who took it upon themselves to help me grow up. They were the closest thing I had ever had to older brothers and I formed very close friendships with them before I moved back to the States to complete my education. Many of them had been raised in the Gulf, by expatriate parents, like my aunt, and returned there when their stay in Egypt was over. Some returned even before I left, and I had slowly tracked them down, or been surprised by them tracking me down in the meantime. So to come here and not see them would be just not right. I set about calling the only two I knew still lived in the Emirates first thing this morning after eating my breakfast and drinking morning tea with the family. Both were overjoyed to hear my voice and in a state of disbelief that I was even in the country, and one, it turns out, lives 20 minutes down the road. He immediately drove down to see me with my aunt at a small museum nearby - with his son in tow.
This is the first time I have seen the offspring of someone I went to school with so long ago (it was practically high school for me, remember), and it hit me like a ton of bricks. My colleagues have gone off, gotten married, become useful members of society, even, while I fiddled around in college. Now, you might say that I got some sort of degree out of it, and you'd be right. And you might say that I got a lot of friends out of it and you'd be doubly right. But deep down inside, I was a little bit sad and a little bit jealous watching my buddy talking to his son. Crazy, huh? Now, let me state, for the record, that I neither want a wife nor any children just yet, and that this was a momentary lapse of reason, but it certainly did have me thinking. Life has been passing me by, and like Rip van Winkle, I have awoken in a world I remember faintly, that has changed immensely.